Politics, Review

Women and Slavery: Agency and Constraint in the Slaveholding South Conference

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By Annya Pabial


Manchester Metropolitan University held the Women and Slavery: Agency and Constraint in the Slaveholding South Conference, inviting leading academics to present their papers on a range of issues concerning the Antebellum American South.

The event began with the topic of ‘Sex, Violence and Female Agency in the Slaveholding South’, and Dr Shannon Eaves’ reading of her paper entitled ‘Enslaved Women and Agency within the Confines of Sexual Servitude in the Antebellum South.’

Dr Eaves had travelled from America to be at the event, as she is currently teaching at the College of Charleston. Her paper focused on how female slaves were bound to do whatever their masters ordered, and how this placed them in a type of sexual servitude. She told the story of Virginia Boyd, a slave who tried to negotiate her terms of bondage with her master, explaining: “by standard legal measure, an enslaved person like Virginia was expected to serve their owner in whatever manner they saw fit […] yet, Virginia Boyd came to believe that years of sexual servitude to Samuel Boyd, and giving birth to two of his children, warranted a different set of terms.”

The next paper was from Dr Andrea Livesey, entitled ‘The Memory of Light-Skinned Enslaved Women in the 1930s’ and focused on how light-skinned black people didn’t fit into either white or black society, as well as the fetishisation of light-skinned black bodies. She explained, “The discussion of mulattos in contemporary Louisianan fiction and folklore allowed people in Louisiana to develop a sense of themselves as racially progressive, ignoring the intense racism that existing in their state.”

Thirdly, conference organiser and lecturer in American History at Manchester Metropolitan, Dr Marie Molloy, presented her paper “Dutiful Wife’ or ‘Lewd Strumpet’: Femininity, Sex and Marital Breakdown in the Slaveholding South.’ It focused on white women who tried to file for divorce but were often refused due to assumptions about their class or race, as well as the expected gender roles that men and women had to uphold.

“Women, especially elite white women, were paragons of femininity and were expected to be pious, pure, submissive and domesticated in their daily lives in return for the provision and protection of their husbands.”

After a short refreshment break, the second topic of ‘Gender, Parenthood and Slavery’ began. This section included a paper from Dr. Emily West, entitled ‘Gender and Free People of Colour within the Slave Regime in the Antebellum South’, about how the freedom of people of colour was ignored by white masters, and they were informally enslaved. Dr West spoke about slavery as a spectrum rather than a linear, binary measure, and how archival silences and omissions added to the narrative the whites wanted to tell, rather than the truth of the oppressed black people. She included a harrowing recount of a Native American black girl from Oklahoma who was found on the roadside by a white slave owner and raised in subjugation, with no option of freedom available to her.

The second half of the section was covered by Dr Rosie Knight’s paper ‘The ‘Dual Exploitation’ of Enslaved Mothers: Centering the Slaveholding Household’, which told the story of enslaved black mothers who had to care for their white mistress’ children as well as their own. It was an illuminating exploration of how they struggled to do the most basic of tasks for their own children, but also formed emotional attachments to their ‘adoptive’ white children: “Charlotte, like so many other enslaved mothers, quite literally had her child taken out of her arms to be replaced with the white child she was supposed to be looking after.”

The topic of ‘Stolen ‘Property’, Theft and Female Resistance to Slavery’ followed, opened by Dr Laura Sandy’s ‘Slave Stealing Women, Slave-Owning Women and Stolen Slaves in the American South.’ She explained that abolitionists would take slaves and set them free, while others would steal slaves and traffick them, often treating them with even more cruelty than their original masters had.

Next was Dr Rebecca Fraser on ‘Black Women’s Artistic Responses to Racial Slavery in Nineteenth-Century America’. Her paper concerned two incredibly talented and intellectual black women who remain largely unknown: Edmonia M. Lewis and Harriet Powers. Dr. Fraser  is working with Gal-Dem magazine to push the stories of women of colour into the contemporary historical narrative, allowing their silenced voices to be heard.

The conference drew to a close with a rousing and animated keynote address from Professor Catherine Clinton of the University of Texas at San Antonio, which summed up the conference and all that it hoped to achieve. She said, “Perhaps in these perilous times, with the scores of children being separated by government decree on the American border, with a need for Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements within the United States; perhaps during this era we must continue to draw the parallels and keep the historical perspective in the headlines.”

This event formed the first of three major events for the History Research Centre’s Youth, Gender and Sexuality research group at Manchester Metropolitan University co-led by Dr April Pudsey and Dr Craig Griffiths.

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Annya Pabial

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